Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian: “France is in Libya to combat terrorism” (2 May 2019)
Le Figaro Newsmaker Interview by Isabelle Lasserre - Paris wants to obtain a ceasefire and re-start negotiations on holding elections.
Why is France so involved in Libya?
Jean-Yves Le Drian: First, to combat terrorism. That’s our leading goal in the region and it has been for a long time, because during Operation Serval, France’s operation in Mali in 2013, we realized that most of the weapons were coming from Libya and many groups – starting with AQIM - had bases there. Remember, Al Qaeda became dominant in Benghazi; Chris Stevens, the American ambassador, was killed in that city in 2012, and Daesh then infiltrated the country. In an interview with Le Figaro back in 2014, I warned of the terrorist risks and the possibility of Daesh becoming established locally. That’s exactly what happened: Daesh occupied several Libyan cities, and at one point even threatened to take over the country’s oil resources. Several attacks committed by jihadists in recent years – the Bardo National Museum attack in Tunis in 2015, the execution of 21 Coptic Christians that same year in Sirte, the Manchester Arena attack in 2017 – have Libyan connections.
Have jihadists been moving into Libya after the fall of the Islamic State caliphate?
Of course. Jihadists from Syria have arrived in Libyan cities, particularly Sirte and Sabratha. Others are scattered throughout the country. Despite its defeat in Syria, Daesh continues to claim credit for attacks. We mustn’t underestimate this threat.
What are other reasons for France’s engagement there?
We have to ensure the security of neighboring countries that are – like Egypt and Tunisia – essential to our own stability, and for which chaos in Libya presents a major risk. We have to avoid contagion. But France was already active in Libya to combat trafficking, including the worst kind – trafficking in human beings. Libya has become a crossroads for risks and threats. Finally, as participants in the 2011 military intervention, and because there was no political follow-through after Ghaddafi’s fall, we also have a kind of responsibility in this crisis. Not to mention that France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which gives it a special responsibility in major international crises.
During your private meeting with Field Marshall Haftar in Benghazi on March 19, did you talk about the military offensive he was preparing to launch against Tripoli?
Not at all. Nor was that the point of my visit. I went to reaffirm France’s support – and President Macron’s support – for the Abu Dhabi agreement, the transition process agreed to early this year, which is supposed to lead to elections. I repeatedly stressed to Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the national unity government, and to Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, that there could be no military solution. Following those two conversations, I observed that contrary to our expectations, the situation was deadlocked. Both Sarraj and Haftar were hesitating to take conclusive steps.
But did you feel that there was a particular military momentum, from his standpoint?
No. In fact, in all of the conversations I had with him, I always reminded him, when he grew impatient, of the need for a political solution. It’s true that we believe he is part of the solution. Haftar’s not a military chief who came out of nowhere. His 2014 counterterrorism operation in eastern Libya was approved by Parliament and by the government, which were internationally recognized at the time, which was before the Skhirat Agreement (December 2015). He always spoke to me of his desire to serve a civilian authority once elections were held. It will be the international community’s role to make sure he keeps his word when the time comes. It’s also why France has been insisting on elections for two years. Right now nobody can claim they hold a mandate from the Libyan people; it’s one of the major reasons for the current crisis.
What compelled him to embark on this military adventure that so far hasn’t really been successful?
I imagine that he believed that time was not on his side. Perhaps he was also encouraged by the warm welcome he received in the southern part of the country, where the inhabitants are worn out by the trafficking and jihadists. I note that the lack of political perspective has led to inertia on the part of some (Sarraj) and recklessness on the part of others (Haftar). We always come back to the same point. Without an election, no Libyan actor can claim to be completely legitimate.
How do you explain his military failure?
Because the militias, who have, until now, been scattered, came together to form an anti-Haftar front. The fighters in the west are more anti-Haftar than pro-Sarraj, and that raises, at the same time, a question regarding the ambiguity that certain groups linked to political Islamism maintain with jihadist groups. The EU calls on everyone to keep their distance on the ground from groups and individuals designated by the Security Council as terrorist groups.
Lastly, was supporting General Haftar not such a good idea?
I leave you to be the judge. The Libyan National Army controls a large part of the territory. And in its opponents’ camp, among the militias there are perpetrators of armed attacks, specialists of predation and jihadists. Among Haftar’s opponents, there are mafia groups of smugglers who torture migrants and force them into slavery. They are not fighting for Sarraj but in order to protect their criminal activities. Haftar fought against terrorism in Benghazi and in southern Libya and that was in our interest, and that of the Sahel countries and Libya’s neighbors. I support everything that strengthens the security of French people and the countries that are friends of France.
What is your response to those who accuse you of having stood up for him?
That is sad. France has continuously supported Sarraj’s government. We have lent a great deal of support to the UN and with respect to security. He knows this. I note that Interior Minister Fathi Bach Agha, who regularly attacks France and denounces its alleged interference in the crisis, does not hesitate to spend time in Turkey. So, I don’t know where the interference is…
How do we break the deadlock?
By promoting a political solution that will allow the formation of an elected government, with internal and external legitimacy, i.e. with the support of the Libyan people and therefore international recognition. France has not changed its policy since President Macron took the initiative in July 2017 to bring together the two main Libyan leaders at La Celle-Saint-Cloud. The political solution was reaffirmed by the international conference at the Élysée in May 2018, then at the conference in Palermo and lastly by the agreements brokered in Abu Dhabi in November. We are therefore now continuing our efforts to secure a ceasefire and to find a political solution based on the Abu Dhabi process, through UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé.